MIT academic Noam Chomsky has been outspoken in advocating more urgent action on climate change jeanbaptisteparis

Alongside left-wing political activist and intellectual Noam Chomsky and ten other British intellectuals, Cambridge academics have issued renewed calls for Cambridge to commit to fully divest its £6.3bn endowment.

In an open letter released today, 200 Cambridge academics have called for greater transparency and accountability in the operations of Cambridge’s Investment Office – the University office tasked with maximising Cambridge’s endowment.

The open letter describes the Investment Office as “stewards of the resources that will sustain this institution’s future”, adding that its actions “deeply impact the public it serves”.

The letter’s release comes as five members of University Council signed a note of dissent to the Council’s annual report over being restricted access to Investment Board documents – in their note, they said: “we cannot properly discharge our duty as trustees of the University if we are arbitrarily and persistently denied access to such documents”

The letter has also demanded structural changes to the Board, that “at least half” of the Investment Board, which reports to Cambridge’s Finance Committee on Investment Office operations, be comprised of “elected student and staff representatives, and that the Office hold at least one open meeting each academic year to report on its activities and take questions”.

Alongside the letter which further demands that Cambridge divest from the fossil fuels industry “within 5 years”, ten academics from other universities, including Chomsky, issued a statement calling on the University to commit to divest its endowment, saying: “It is time Cambridge University listened to the science and its own academics.” 

The statement cited an IPCC report published in October, which found that global greenhouse gas emissions would need to be cut by around 45% by 2030 to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

In full: The note of dissent in this year’s Annual Report of the Council

We are unable to support the Annual Report of the Council to the Regent House. Council members are entitled under Standing Order 10.2 to see all papers of subsidiary committees. We cannot properly discharge our duty as trustees of the University if we are arbitrarily and persistently denied access to such documents, in particular, to those of the Investment Board.

Following the disclosure in the Paradise Papers that the Cambridge University Endowment Fund had invested in Shell via an offshore company – contrary to what Council members had been led to believe about energy investments – one of us (Professor Anderson) demanded access to the Investment Board's papers. This access has been denied, as Professor Anderson reported to the Regent House on 23 January 2018 in the Discussion of last year's Report

Professor Dame Athene Donald’s Divestment Working Group, reporting earlier this year, subsequently remarked on the opacity of the Investment Office and recommended that transparency be improved (pp. 13–14 and Recommendation 6). Council members have since demanded access to Investment Board papers on more than one occasion; this has either been denied with various excuses, or access has been promised and not delivered. We accept that there are some circumstances where investment decisions cannot be made public – such as venture capital investments in startups that are still in stealth mode. However that is no argument for preventing us as trustees from seeing the Board papers in confidence, as is normal with the papers of all other committees that report to Council.

Signed by:

Professor Ross Anderson

Professor Nicholas Gay

Evie Aspinall

Marcel Llavero Pasquina

Sofia Ropek-Hewson

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In a further comment to the letter, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams described the Council’s decisions on altering Investment Office governance and hiring staff as “an opportunity for the University to shape a new and constructive response to [the] challenge [of climate change].”

The calls for divestment come six months after the University Council’s landmark decision against full divestment. The Council also opted to employ an Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) Funds manager, in place of recommendations by the University’s divestment working group that it commit 10% of its endowment explicitly to ESG funds.


Mountain View

Five University Council members make landmark dissent over ‘arbitrary’ restriction of documents

In September, nearly half of the nine employees of Cambridge’s Investment Office resigned – including Chief Investment Officer Nick Cavalla. 

Minutes of a Council meeting held on 15th October revealed that during the transition period of replacing Investment Office staff, “further work [has been] under way to make some adjustments to governance, such as creating a better link between University trustees and the external expert investment advisors on the Investment Board”.

In the October meeting, Vice-chancellor Stephen Toope told members that there are “currently no plans for changes to the [Cambridge University Endowment Fund] CUEF Investment Strategy, the Fund of Funds model, and the internal Investment Office model”.

One of the demands of the open letter states that “the Investment Office publicly disclose the full list of companies and funds that they invest in.”